This portion of the series focuses on the primary differences, advantages and disadvantages between revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. I’m making the assumption that readers contemplating what I’ve had to say in the first nine installments intend to do more than purchase a firearm exclusively for home defense. Our lives don’t lose their value outside the home–though some are surely arguing that–and one is, depending on a variety of factors, arguably more rather than less likely to need to defend their life—or the lives of others–-outside their home.
As with the first article in the series, I write primarily for those whose knowledge of firearms and related terminology is limited. As the information I’m providing here is covered in a wide variety of magazines–print and online–and books, I’ll be providing primarily an overview rather than an exhaustive exposition of the issues. I recommend as a basic text The Complete Book of Combat Handgunning by Chuck Taylor. It contains the fundamentals necessary to develop essential basic skills. Full disclosure: I am one of the few certified as an instructor by Taylor’s American Small Arms Academy, and I am also certified by the NRA as a range safety and handgun instructor.
Why a handgun? There’s an old story about a reporter who asked a Texas Ranger why he carried a .45. He replied, in a slow drawl (of course): “Because they don’t make a .46.” The point is that one should always carry the most effective weapon they can efficiently manage. Anyone who knowingly enters a gunfight armed with less than a rifle (or submachine gun) is asking to die. Long guns are much easier to shoot accurately at much greater than handgun ranges and are far more deadly. Carbines such as the AR-15 family can also serve as excellent home defense firearms. However, since it is practically difficult or impossible to carry such weapons on a daily basis, a handgun is the best alternative.
But what about shotguns? Aren’t they more effective than handguns? Yes, particularly when employed against enraged waterfowl. Seriously, despite what Hollywood (and Vice President Biden) would have one believe, they must be aimed like any firearm. The effectiveness of shotgun ammunition depends primarily on keeping the shot column together, as close to the diameter with which it left the muzzle of the shotgun as possible, which means that to be truly effective, shotgun range is essentially the same as handgun range: Out to about 25 yards, and the closer the better. Generally speaking, the shorter the barrel (18″ is the legal minimum without a federal stamp similar to that required to own an automatic weapon, suppressor or short barreled rifle) the shorter the effective range of the shotgun.
The Remington 870 12 gauge shotgun depicted here has a number of the more common accessories. Some claim that shotguns are more flexible than handguns because they accept a greater range of potential cartridges, including various kinds of shot and slug cartridges. This is true to a point, but only the larger calibers of buckshot, such as the standard 00 (“double ought”) buckshot are truly effective on human beings at beyond easy handgun range, and while some slugs can increase reasonable shotgun range to 50 yards and more with some weapons, accuracy will always be lacking compared to rifles because shotguns are, of necessity, smoothbore weapons. They have no rifling in their barrels to impart spin to a projectile, thus stabilizing it and greatly increasing accuracy. In many cases, shot can be stopped entirely, or its effectiveness greatly reduced, by nothing more than heavy winter clothing. This is particularly true at greater ranges. [Obviously, we’re not talking slug guns, with rifled barrels – Ed.]
Shotguns are also, like rifles, long guns. They’re simply not practical for daily carry.
I mention 25 yards as more or less a universal standard. Experts can deliver accurate handgun fire at greater ranges, but for most, 25 yards is the outer effective limit. Twenty-five yards may not sound like much, until you’re trying to place a bullet on a human-sized target that looks surprisingly small at that range. Distance can be tricky. If you’re not convinced, pace off 25 yards and see how far it actually is. It is fortunate–and frightening–that the overwhelming majority of gunfights take place at much, much closer ranges.
The choice of a personal, defensive handgun must take into account many factors, but ultimately one should choose a handgun that is powerful, concealable, reliable, that they can shoot well, and with which they are comfortable. Ultimately, the most effective handgun is one with which one regularly practices and that one is willing and able to carry each and every day. That said, the choice is simpler, and more difficult, than many imagine.
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REVOLVER OR SEMIAUTOMATIC?
Revolvers predate semiautomatics. Revolvers are so called because cartridges are loaded into a steel cylinder commonly holding 5-6 rounds, though some major caliber, full sized revolvers hold 7 and some .22LR revolvers hold more. Pulling the trigger and/or cocking the hammer mechanically rotates–revolves–the cylinder bringing a fresh round into precise alignment with the barrel. Revolvers come in two action types: double action and single action.
Single action revolvers are like the Colt .45 handguns of cinema westerns. Cocking the large, exposed hammer, usually with the thumb of the strong (the same hand holding the revolver) hand, rotates the cylinder. Internal mechanical linkage simultaneously rotates the cylinder to align the next cartridge with the barrel while holding the hammer fully back, ready, with a pull of the trigger, to be released to fall forward. The resulting short and light trigger pull (the trigger moves backward as the hammer is cocked) serves only to release the hammer to strike the primer of the cartridge; pulling the trigger does not cause the cylinder to revolve. The firing pins of such weapons, particularly in original or older designs, are often fixed to the hammer.
This revolver is the modern Ruger Vaquero, however it faithfully reflects the general configuration of the genre, including no real, truly useful rear sight.
Such weapons are generally inappropriate for personal defense. Experts can indeed do amazing things with these designs, which are more than a century old, and manufacturers continue to produce modern versions of these weapons that are completely safe to use with modern cartridges, have fully adjustable sights, and have some modern safety features that allow them to be safely carried and handled with fully loaded cylinders, but they are large, cumbersome, slow to fire and even slower to reload. They’re wonderful for target shooting, handgun hunting in the larger calibers, or western style shooting competitions, but modern weapons have greatly surpassed them in convenience and effectiveness.
NOTE: Original single action revolvers like the famous Colt Peacemaker design should have only five out of six chambers loaded and should be carried with the hammer down–at rest–on the empty chamber. This is necessary because, lacking any kind of firing pin safety, a blow on the hammer can drive the firing pin into the primer of a cartridge, firing the weapon. Anyone owning such weapons should be absolutely certain of its safety features, or the lack thereof.
Double action revolvers are modern weapons, and can be fired in double action mode, with a long, relatively heavy trigger pull that rotates the cylinder and ultimately drops the hammer to strike the primer and fire the cartridge. As a result, revolvers do not have mechanical safety devices that must be manipulated in order to fire the weapon. They also have a single action mode—very much like single-action-only revolvers–-where cocking the hammer rotates the cylinder and pulls the trigger fully back, producing a short, light trigger pull. Owners of double action revolvers should always train to use their weapon in double action mode. It is very easy indeed to accidentally fire a cocked revolver in single action mode when under great stress.
This small revolver—the Ruger LCR in .38 special caliber—is state of the art in revolver design with its polymer frame, relatively low bore axis, relatively smooth action and relieved/lightened cylinder. Notice that it uses an internal hammer. It cannot be cocked, or fired, in single action mode.
This is a Smith & Wesson Model 66 .357 Magnum revolver. Produced in stainless steel, this–-and its non-stainless sibling–-was once a very common duty handgun for American police officers. It is a medium framed revolver, substantially larger and heavier than the Ruger LCR or similar revolvers, and is generally intended to be carried on a duty belt on the hip. A very well made weapon, the MSRP for this revolver is $849.00 (circa February, 2014). Virtually all revolver manufacturers make models in this general size/caliber range.
SEMIAUTOMATICS are sometimes incorrectly called “automatics.” An automatic weapon fires multiple rounds for each pull of the trigger. As long as the trigger is pulled and held back, the weapon will continue to fire until the trigger is released or its ammunition supply is exhausted. Expert machine gunners can fire bursts of two-three rounds or more simply by means of manual trigger manipulation. Some automatic weapons mimic this ability with burst features that fire short, predetermined bursts–usually three rounds–with a single pull of the trigger. A semiautomatic weapon fires only one round for each pull of the trigger. Semiautomatics hold their ammunition in magazines. Magazines are often incorrectly called “clips.” The only currently manufactured, widely available firearm that actually uses ammunition clips is the M1 Garand battle rifle. Most semiautomatic pistols hold more rounds than revolvers; in many cases, a great many rounds more. The Glock 17 in 9mm, for example, is a full-sized duty-type handgun with a normal magazine capacity of 17 rounds. With one round in the chamber, the capacity of a Glock 17 is exactly three times that of a six-round revolver.
All semiautomatic pistols work on the same principle: Firing a cartridge uses the energy of firing to push a heavy metal slide back against a powerful spring. On its backward travel, the slide extracts the fired case from the chamber and ejects it through the ejection port on the slide. When the slide hits the rear stop, it is propelled forward under spring tension, picks up a fresh cartridge from the magazine and inserts it into the chamber. This slide action also cocks the hammer or internal striker. This process is very fast and appears as a blur to most. A powerful spring in the magazine pushes each fresh cartridge upward, ready to be fed into the chamber. In most designs, when the last round has been fired, the magazine spring pushes the magazine follower upward to engage the slide lock, forcing the slide to lock fully open (back) to notify the shooter he has shot his weapon dry. This cycling may be accomplished by a blowback system of several kinds (the most common in contemporary handguns), a gas system, or some combination of the two. Many semiautomatic pistols have an external, manual safety device of some kind.
This well-designed graphic illustrates the function of a Browning-designed model 1911 pistol, and is illustrative of the process, which is virtually identical for all semiautomatic pistols, allowing for slight variations in mechanical design.
Semiautomatic pistols, however, have a greater number of trigger types than revolvers.
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Single Action: This is the oldest currently available pistol mechanism, characterized by John Moses Browning designs, and is the mechanism employed on the Model 1911 .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) and the Browning Hi-Power (1935) in 9mm Parabellum (Latin: “for war”). In these pistols, an exposed hammer is manually fully cocked and a safety lever mounted on the left side of the frame engaged. To fire, the shooter clicks off (pushes down) the safety and pulls the trigger, which commonly has a light and short travel, greatly enhancing accuracy.
NOTE: The study of John Moses Browning is fascinating in and of itself. Browning was an authentic American genius, though much neglected in contemporary history classrooms because he invented firearms. Browning’s contributions to winning WWII, for example, cannot be too highly touted.
This 1911 is a much-modified model by Springfield Armory known as the “Range Officer.”
This means of carrying these pistols, commonly known as “cocked and locked,” frightens the uninitiated, but is perfectly safe when done by those properly trained who use proper holsters. With this action type, each trigger pull is short, light and consistent, significantly contributing to ease of use and accuracy. Such weapons employ the manufacturing methods and materials–-heavy, high-quality steel–-available a century ago and are expensive and labor intensive to make. Like everything designed by Browning, they are effective, reliable and mechanically brilliant designs, but they can be expensive.
Double Action: A second action type is the double action mechanism that mimics the trigger and hammer action of the double action revolver. European weapons such as various Walther pistols with this mechanism (such as the P-38, the PP and PPK) were in use before WWII. American manufacturers, most notably Smith and Wesson, produced double action pistols in large numbers beginning in the 1970s to increase sales of semiautomatics to police forces which at the time almost exclusively used double action revolvers. Col. Jeff Cooper called this invention “an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem.” He was referring to the fact that double action semiautomatics are not designed to be carried “cocked and locked,” which was a selling point to uninformed and skittish police executives horrified by the sight of cocked hammers.
This double action semiautomatic pistol is a Walther P-22 in .22 LR. While the caliber is generally inappropriate as a self-defense gun, its action is identical to its larger in caliber cousins. My article on that handgun can be found here.
The inherent problem with this type of trigger mechanism is the first trigger pull is long and heavy, but because the first, and every subsequent shot fired causes the cycling of the slide to cock the hammer, the second and every subsequent shot requires only a single action trigger pull, in other words, a much shorter, lighter pull of the trigger. This commonly results in widely varying impact points between at least the first two shots on any target, and while experienced, capable shooters can overcome this “feature,” double action mechanisms are a less than optimum option, just as Col. Cooper suggested.
Double Action Only: Another action type is a hybrid of the double action mechanism that seeks to address the inherent shot to shot accuracy problem of such actions. In this case, manufacturers produce weapons incapable of single action fire, so that each pull of the trigger must be double action. In other words the trigger recycles fully forward after each shot–it does not cock the hammer–making a long, relatively heavy trigger pull necessary for each shot. While this method might be a theoretical improvement on double action mechanisms, any action that requires a long, heavy trigger pull will be inherently less accurate and harder to consistently shoot than a lighter, shorter trigger.
This double action only handgun—a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard in .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol)—is representative of the genre. My article on that handgun is available here. An interesting feature of this weapon is its integral laser sight, activated by the ambidextrous red button on the front of the frame. NOTE: Red button models have lasers manufactured by Crimson Trace while gray button models were earlier models with lasers manufactured by Insight. Despite having a double-action-only mechanism, the Bodyguard also features a manual safety lever, likely as a means of defense against lawsuits. The little handgun is completely safe to carry with a chambered round and the safety disengaged.
Striker Fired: The most modern mechanism is the striker-fired pistol, typified by the Glock design. These weapons do not have an exposed external hammer or an internal hammer, but instead employ what is essentially a larger than usual, heavier firing pin driven by a strong spring. When recoil cycles the slide, the striker spring is compressed—cocked–until it is released by the next activation of the trigger. Trigger pulls with this type of weapon are shorter and lighter than those of double action pistols, and are consistent from shot to shot. While the triggers do not have the very short travel of a single action mechanism and they are not quite as light (Glocks can be reduced to a 3.5 pound trigger pull), they are far superior to any double action or double action only mechanism, and are also superior to double action revolver triggers. Glocks employ a unique system of three independent integral safety devices. There is no external safety which must be manipulated by the shooter. As with revolvers, one must really want to fire a Glock to make it discharge.
This particular Glock is my daily carry handgun, a Glock 26 in 9mm. The only two additions beyond the out of the box handgun are a Pearce Grip magazine finger rest and a Crimson Trace laser sight. My article on that laser sight is available here, and my article on the original Glock handgun, the Glock 17, is available here.
One of the many and significant advantages of the Glock design is that trigger pull weight can be easily changed from seven to five pounds, for example, merely by changing drop-in parts, an easy process with the modular Glock which uses not a single screw. Glocks and copycat weapons are made with polymer (plastic) frames and many other polymer parts. This method of manufacture has many advantages, such as low cost, speed of manufacture, long life, no rusting, and the ability to absorb some recoil energy that would otherwise be imparted directly to the shooter. To contain the inherent firing pressures and recoil forces, however, such weapons must have steel barrels, slides, and slide rails. There is no such thing as a “plastic gun” that can’t be seen on x-ray machines. A Glock under x-ray looks exactly like what it is, and most of its weight is, in fact, steel.
Another interesting Glock feature is the ability to “catch the link.” When firing a round, the shooter holds the trigger fully back as the slide cycles, and after the slide has returned to battery (is fully forward and closed) slowly allows the trigger to move forward until an audible and easily felt “click” occurs. This allows the next shot to have a much shorter and lighter trigger pull, enhancing long-range accuracy. But this is not a true single action mode as it does not function in the same way, and it requires a conscious effort on the part of the shooter to make the weapon function in this way for each shot. The primary advantage of the Glock-–and similar—mechanisms remains their relatively short trigger travel, light pull weight, and shot to shot consistency. Small Glocks like the 26 also have the advantage of small size and light weight while still retaining substantial magazine capacity.
Next week’s article will focus on the advantages and disadvantage of revolvers and semiautomatic handguns.